Berkeley Playhouse and the future of theater

Peter and Hook 150

Peter Pan (Brandy Collazo) outwits Captain Hook (Gabriel Grilli) in the Peter Pan, The musical, a Berkeley Playhouse production playing through Aug. 23 at Ashby Stage. Photo by Ralph Granich


A trip to Neverland this weekend refreshed my hope for the future – not just the future of theater, but the future of the arts and the future of this country.

It’s easy, in these disproportionately bizarre times, to lose hope. With every conceivable arts program being cut or trimmed into oblivion, those of us who value the act of creativity have reason to despair. Kids are not getting the exposure to the arts they need, and though steadfast arts groups are doing everything they can to try and fill the void, the fact is that kids who might be ignited or thrilled or even saved by the arts are slipping through the cracks.

I say this as one who was saved – repeatedly – by the arts, specifically theater, as a child and as a teen. I went to a public high school that actually had a drama program, though even then it was in the process of being whittled down, while the athletic programs – as beneficial to certain students as the arts programs are to others – was continually beefed up.

I’ve never understood why the arts have to be continually fought for. Are we really that shortsighted as a society that we fail to remember that great works of art, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Van Gogh, are among our most prized artifacts of the past? And if we continue down the underfunded road we’re on, what artifacts are we leaving to future generations?

I have complete faith that great art will continue to emerge no matter what economic suppression is at hand. But I worry that the kind of art salvation I found as a young person – that gave me a community and a sense of self-worth – is missing from the lives of too many kids who could use a little salvation.

I know that great work with young people is done at theaters around the Bay Area. From my desk at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I can see down into a rehearsal hall where the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre holds its summer intensive classes. If I were in high school or younger, those are exactly the classes I’d beg to be attending. Other such programs exist, from Cal Shakes to SF Shakes to ACT and many others, and hooray for that.

We can only hope it’s enough for now and that the parents whose children benefit from these theater classes make enough noise and keep their checkbooks open long enough to keep the programs alive so that they can expand to fill the need.

This weekend I headed over to the Ashby Stage, where Berkeley Playhouse is performing Peter Pan, The Musical. I have to say that my experiences with Berkeley Playhouse have been incredibly heartening. Artistic director Elizabeth McKoy has aimed to create a thriving theater company that creates entertainment that can be enjoyed both by children and adults – genuine family entertainment that doesn’t talk down to kids or bore adults.

Like other productions I’ve seen, including Seussical the Musical and The BFG, Peter Pan, The Musical (directed by McKoy with music direction by Phil Gorman) is captivating and more than meet’s McKoy’s institutional goals. The house as packed, and though there were many kids on laps and kids eager to fill up the first few actor-interactive rows, there were also adults there without kids in tow, adults who simply wanted to see a live, local version of a show that is most famous for turning Mary Martin into the boy who won’t grow up. In more recent years, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby donned the green tights of Peter Pan and dazzled audiences with some of the most sophisticated flying ever seen in a theater.

I knew McKoy and her creative team would deliver a production blending child actors and grown-up professionals, but I did wonder how they’d handle the challenges of flying. I needn’t have worried. Technical director Alf Pollard, aerial/fight choreographer Mathew Graham Smith and flying operator Raymond Christy managed the trick quite handily. Aside from pixie dust, their secret is making the flying athletic, fun and completely obvious. There’s no attempt to hide the ropes on which the actors swing around, but that doesn’t lessen the fun at all. While young people might be quite used to seamless CGI special effects in movies, they seemed completely enthralled with the ropes-and-pulleys effects on the Ashby stage.

The willing suspension of disbelief, and the vicarious thrill of flying, no matter how obvious the rope, combine to make this Peter Pan soar.

It’s no wonder that McKoy’s ambition and hard work is paying off. Next season, Berkeley Playhouse will take up residence at the Julia Morgan Center with a season that includes The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and Oliver!

And while the shows on stage are fantastic, there are music theater conservatory classes for ages 2 to 102 (as McKoy puts it). Berkeley Playhouse is filling a niche, and filling it with skill and integrity. McKoy is creating a successful model, and with any luck, in spite of these pinched, art-unfriendly times, she will inspire others to do their part in bringing theater – and the arts in general – to an ever-growing group of young people who have the misfortune to be young in a shrinking world.


Berkeley Playhouse’s Peter Pan, The Musical continues through Aug. 23 at the Ashby Stage. For ticket information or to find out more about classes and the coming season, visit



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